“It is enough that I speak; I shall destroy this wall of fear.”
Dissident Romanian pastor Laszlo Tokes spoke these words and ignited demonstrations in Timisoara one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Radio Free Europe correspondent Roland Eggleston was able to reach Timisoara from Hungary to cover the story before the border was closed. RFE’s Romanian Service aired a smuggled recording of police and army violence against peaceful demonstrators. Information about these outrages, which of course was not available on local media, fuelled the massive and growing protests in Bucharest that by the end of December had led to the ouster (and death) of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
During those crucial days, RFE directed special programs to the Romanian security forces, reminding them of their professional duty not to turn their weapons against civilians and noting the positive examples of other armies during the peaceful revolutions that had unfolded earlier that year in the region. Many Romanians credit RFE with helping to avert even more violent reactions from the police and military.
During the 1970s, Radio Free Europe (which broadcast to Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and the Baltic States and merged with Radio Liberty, broadcasting to the rest of the Soviet Union, in 1976 to form RFE/RL Inc.) had become a megaphone through which the suppressed views of dissidents and opposition figures could be heard by people behind the Iron Curtain. As 1989 approached and the communist systems decayed, RFE was increasingly able to report directly from the region. As RFE Polish Service head Marek Latynski said in early 1988: “There is no curtain of silence anymore. Nobody is afraid to talk to us.”
That year, RFE was able to interview by telephone 190 prominent Poles and regularly aired reports from informal correspondents inside Poland itself. With RFE’s broadcasts, change was literally in the air.
In 1988, many RFE broadcasters were able for the first time to visit and work in the countries to which they had been broadcasting for years. Levente Kasa was posted as a Hungarian Service correspondent in Budapest. Toomas Hendrick Ilves, then the head of RFE’s Estonian Service and the current president of Estonia, was able to interview dissidents on the ground in Tallinn.
Before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, RFE provided listeners with comprehensive information and coverage about the changes sweeping Eastern Europe. In doing so, it showed them the new horizons that were opening up and demonstrated the scope of the support for change in the region.
RFE interviewed top Hungarian Party leader Imre Poszgay. It detailed the flight of East Germans to West German embassies around Eastern Europe. It reported indications from Moscow -- indications that were ignored in the local media of our broadcast countries -- that the Red Army would not intervene to prop up failing communist regimes as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and had threatened to do in Poland in 1980-81. Thanks in part to RFE, the communist regimes were unable to keep the various protests isolated from one another or to marginalize opposition figures by restricting circulation of their ideas.
I think two stories are particularly illustrative. First, in the spring of 1989 -- well before the Berlin Wall fell -- RFE’s Polish Service provided comprehensive coverage of the Polish “roundtable” between representatives of the regime and those of the Solidarity movement. Later, the service provided a media platform for non-Communist Party candidates in the June parliamentary elections -- candidates who had been blacklisted by the state media -- and by doing so contributed to making those elections freer and fairer.
With the formation of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s Solidarity government in September, RFE was able to post correspondents in Poland, to establish a bureau there, to provide continuous coverage of the emerging Polish democracy both for the Poles and for the entire region, and to serve as a model for professional, non-partisan public broadcasting.
Second, two weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, RFE’s Czechoslovak Service was providing unique coverage of the Velvet Revolution. RFE had reported on the growing demoralization within the Communist Party and on growing social unrest earlier in the year. It reported on police brutality in suppressing a peaceful demonstration on November 17, violence that outraged the nation and led to the ensuing mass demonstrations on Wenceslas Square.
The communist authorities had granted a visa to Czechoslovak Service head Pavel Pechacek to cover two nonpolitical events in Prague. He arrived on November 21 and, with domestic media still under government control, he provided the only uncensored coverage of the crucial first three days of the Velvet Revolution demonstrations. If not for his reports, the nation might never have realized the scope of the movement and its momentum might have dissipated.
Speaking in Washington in the fall of 1989, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said “the degree [of RFE’s influence] cannot even be described. Would there be an Earth without the sun?” Other one-time dissidents who later became leaders in the democratic countries of Central Europe, including Vaclav Havel, have lauded RFE/RL in similar terms.
RFE/RL continues to play this role today, broadcasting to most of the former Soviet Union, to the fragile Western Balkans, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. Events this summer in Iran held surprising echoes of 1989, and RFE/RL’s Persian-language service, Radio Farda, strove to provide information that a repressive regime denied its own people.
Once again, we wait to hear -- from Russia, from Turkmenistan, from Uzbekistan, from Iran -- the words that brought RFE/RL such joy in 1988: “There is no curtain of silence. No one is afraid to talk to us.” Ross Johnson was director of Radio Free Europe in 1988-91. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here
for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.